House Dems prep for immigration battle

House Democrats are quietly preparing to move an immigration bill this year.

While Democrats in the lower chamber are not deviating from their strategy of waiting for the Senate to act first, they are not just twiddling their thumbs.

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Democrats at the subcommittee and full committee level have been staking their claim in the debate, arguing they will be able to hit the ground running if the Senate clears a bill.

According to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), his colleagues are getting ready in the event that their Senate colleagues pass an immigration bill.

Cuellar, chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on border security, recently approached the full Homeland Security Committee chairman, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), about having a seat at the table.

“I was talking to my chairman, saying, ‘Hey, you’re the big chairman. I’m the little chairman; I want to be there with you.’ He said, ‘You’re definitely going to be in the room,’ ” Cuellar told The Hill last week.

Cuellar also had a lengthy conversation on the floor of the House last Thursday with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction on immigration reform.

Over the past several weeks, Lofgren has been talking with members on the contentious issue, according to a Democratic aide.

Arizona’s enactment of a stringent border-security bill last month has generated some momentum on Capitol Hill for comprehensive immigration reform.

But the Senate is still a long way from passing a bill.

Political analysts contend that immigration reform is too controversial to pass this year, noting the election is less than six months away.

Still, advocates for national reform, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the author (along with Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas) of a comprehensive immigration bill awaiting action in Lofgren’s subcommittee, are more optimistic than they have been in years.

Gutierrez, who was arrested on Saturday for participating in a “sit-in” in front of the White House to protest the Arizona law, has been meeting with a number of his colleagues to discuss his measure as well as the politics of immigration reform, Gutierrez spokesman Doug Rivlin said.

Cuellar, a co-sponsor of the Gutierrez bill, said time is short: “I personally want to see it, but are you going to put another tough issue [to Congress]?

Because remember, this is a window, and I think we’re getting very close to the window. Once you get into June … ”

His voice trailing off, Cuellar shook his head at the prospect of moving such a measure within the next several weeks.

According to aides close to high-ranking Democratic lawmakers, the House would pass its own version of immigration reform if the Senate passes a bill.

A source familiar with Lofgren’s thinking could not say whether the Gutierrez bill would be used as the vehicle to move such a measure or whether Lofgren would introduce a new bill.

Gutierrez’s bill has 96 co-sponsors, all Democrats. He has called his measure “a marker,” stressing that he is open to compromise.

Lofgren’s subcommittee held hearings on immigration reform during the last Congress and would likely move directly to marking up a House bill to save time.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to move an immigration bill this year, but the chances of such a bill passing before Memorial Day are unlikely. The Senate will first look to pass financial regulatory reform and energy bills.

President Barack Obama last week conceded that immigration reform probably wasn’t going to pass this year, noting he needs GOP backing to get it to his desk.

Obama initially promised to pass an immigration bill in 2009, but that issue, like many others, took a backseat to healthcare reform last year.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) agrees that immigration is unlikely to pass in the 111th Congress, saying Democrats’ efforts to reach a bipartisan consensus in an election year are “nothing more than a cynical ploy to try to engage voters, some segment of the voters, to show up in this November’s election.”

Gutierrez last month told The Hill that he will advise Latino voters to stay home on Election Day if the Democratic Party does not make a concerted effort to pass immigration reform this year.